I’ve been struggling to figure out how to organize this post, ever since I started the first one in the series. I want to talk about what departments are doing, but I don’t want it to be some sort of inventory. That’s not why I’m writing. I don’t care if Fisheries is doing one thing and Environment is doing another. I don’t care if one person reports that Transport is doing something and all heck breaks loose arguing it’s either not what someone else heard or it’s not the right thing to do or they spelled cluster truck wrong.
But as I thought about what I wanted the conclusion to be with “episode 7” in my increasingly misnamed series of 4-5 posts (with apologies to Douglas Adams), I realized what I wanted, or even needed, this post to be about.
It’s about what management is doing when it is generally left to their own devices.
What they heard
As I mentioned previously, they’ve heard LOTS of people say “We want to work from home forever”. Great, that message has been heard. And guess what? It’s about the same as everyone saying they’d like their salary doubled and their annual leave banks tripled, and retirement after ten years of work. It’s not particularly viable, so telling management that has as about as much chance as Treasury Board saying yes to the first demands from any union during negotiations. The normal process is that employees (aka the union) asks for the moon, and negotiate down to something a little more reasonable.
Management have been working from home too. And guess what? Many of them LIKE it. They think it’s great for personal work / life balance. But unlike regular employees, they’re not running around saying that the kids are alright and everything is running fine. That’s not true, they see the cracks. They know everything is NOT fine. There are gaps.
The biggest claim by many people is basic — “I’ve been working from home for the last 2 years and it’s working perfectly fine.” I’ve got a newsflash for you if you’ve said that…you don’t get to make that assessment. Your boss does.
And in that line, it’s a lot like “duty to accommodate” in general. Let’s assume that you’ve injured your back jumping on your kid’s trampoline. Maybe you fell, wrenched something seriously, and you are totally seized. It’s going to be weeks, maybe even months, of physiotherapy to get you back to normal. But suppose you used to work in the mailroom, and part of your job was taking in deliveries of some large boxes regularly. Your doctor checks you out, and gives you a note that says, “nope, sorry, this employee can’t lift boxes over 30 pounds and therefore has to work from home for the next six months instead doing filework”.
A lot of people think that note is final. The doctor said X, the employer will just follow it. That is NOT how it works. In that statement above, the note that the employee can’t lift over 30 pounds is totally valid and is a “functional limitation”. That’s what doctors do. Whether initially in a simple note or later with a larger form, they state what the functional limitations are for their patient.
But the second part — WFH for six months — that is a form of accommodation. That isn’t decided by the employee or the doctor. It is decided by management — they decide what accommodations will be offered. They have to be legit accommodations, it isn’t just that they’ll offer two aspirins and expect to see the person still doing full duties. They can’t do that, but they could decide that based on the functional limitation, their accommodation is going to be to move the person from box delivery to envelope delivery and sorting. No big boxes to lift, problem solved. It was the only limitation mentioned, and they don’t have to go with what the employee WANTS or THINKS is a good solution (like WFH instead of being vaccinated), it is what management offers as a reasonable accommodation. It can be grieved, of course, but the test from the tribunal will be very clear — was it a reasonable accommodation that accommodated what the functional limitations are in the medical note? If so, the decision is clear. Management decides how best to accommodate. And as long as it reasonably accommodates the functional limitation, it’ll be the solution. Not the best one for the employee, not the preferred one, the one that management feels is the best accommodation while meeting operational needs.
Oh, I can hear you saying, “but, but, but” to say management can’t just do what they want. Totally true. That’s true. But if they offer a reasonable accommodation to the documented limitation, their duty is met. They’ve accommodated you. They do not have to go beyond that.
Sooooo, if I bring it back to RTW, people are saying “Hey, I’ve done everything at home, it’s working fine.”. But, just as DTA splits between diagnosis and response, RTW assessments are split between employees saying if it works for them, and management deciding if the form is meeting all the operational needs. Vertical delivery? Mostly okay. Horizontal network and collaboration? That would be no. So guess what? You are actually NOT doing the full job that is required. You may get a good rating in your PA, but those are against constraints too. They say “Hey you did a great job”, but they don’t write that they are taking into account that you couldn’t do everything you needed to do, you weren’t able to go into the office, horizontal stuff was in the toilet.
What they DIDN’T hear was virtually any union or group of employees saying, “Okay, we see that management doesn’t think everything is great, we’re not firing on all cylinders. Here’s what we propose when we go back to the office.” Not if, when.
It’s a continuum, of course
For anyone who has studied behavioural economics and psychology, one of the early elements on “choice” is that choice is generally good, right up until too much choice paralyzes people. Nobody needs to choose from 40 types of ketchup in the supermarket. It’s too much for most people. Supermarkets tried it out and found out really quickly that sales actually went DOWN. People couldn’t choose so they wouldn’t choose ANYTHING.
Well, for RTW, with no clear direction from the Centre, and employees only saying “100% WFH”, most departments were left to their own devices to figure it out. And for an extended period of time, they were in paralysis-by-analysis mode. There is, regrettably, no single right answer. And that is where many departments stalled.
They hit a wall because they wanted to be respectful, much of WFH is working great. Lots of senior management are saying they don’t think government work will ever return to 5d/week in the office. We have successfully turned a corner where WFH is and will be embedded as part of the conversation for at least the next few years, and potentially forever (more on that tomorrow).
Much of what stalled them for quite some time were two variables. Fairness and chaos.
For fairness, many departments have been very concerned about a single approach that everyone would be bound by in the department. Why should a researcher get to work from home (and thereby gets what they want) while an HR assistant can’t (and is therefore less rewarded, if that’s the right word). In a single directorate of say 70 people, how many models would there be? 1 or 70? How do you make 70 fair? Just leave it to the employee? But if you’re trying to meet operational and organizational needs, shouldn’t the organization have a serious say in how that RTW looks?
For chaos, if you take into account there are about 220 business days a year, nobody wanted 220 different models. Employees and management wanted to know when people would be in the office and in a way that makes sense. Middle managers for example, many of whom don’t particularly want to be in the office either, don’t see any benefit of going in on a Tuesday for example if of 20 people in their team, only 4 are in on Tuesday, and the rest spread throughout the week. If the whole point is to engage with your coworkers in person, don’t you kind of need the team to be in the office at the same time?
But then again, you’re back to the fairness problem. What if Tuesday works well for Bill but not for Dave? What if Wednesday is great for Dave but bad for Jill’s weekly physio appointment?
So, many departments went round-and-round the mulberry bush, and finally said, STOP. And they made a decision.
One group of departments went with something like in the office 2 consecutive days a week for everybody. Each unit (of whatever size) would decide on Monday/Tuesday or Tuesday/Wednesday or Wednesday/Thursday or Thursday/Friday. Four models. Everybody would pick one, they’d even out loads so not everyone chose Tuesday/Wednesday, and that was it. Case closed. Everybody is treated fairly, no chaos. And the people who worked there said, “WTF? How come nobody asked US?”. Well, in fact, they had. And got nothing but “Wakanda Forever”, err, I mean, “WFH forever!” as a response. It didn’t help them so they made a decision. In some smaller departments, that was likely a decision mainly of the DM. Some ADMs likely felt consulted, others not so much, but at least they had a decision.
By comparison, some departments looked like bastions of empowerment. They too said “two days a week”, but then said, “One day chosen by the directorate aka Management” and “one day chosen by the employee”. Yay fairness! Boo for chaos, in some cases. Everybody’s on different schedules, who knows when their team is in the office other than the “directorate day”. And some people said “Yay, there’s a decision, finally” while others said, “Wait, was WFH forever an option, did we discuss that first?”. Yes, they did. You didn’t say anything useful, they made the decision (mostly) without you.
Doubling down on analysis
Some departments, particularly larger ones took the little direction they had and what they had heard and said, “Okay, let’s figure this out. Let’s do the analysis for all the different types of jobs and tie it to operational needs.” Great plan, right? Sounds solid, very tactical. Right up until you run into the same problem the government has always had. It’s the reason for classification reform, in fact, an almost perpetual thorn in the side of TBS and the PSC. There are…wait for it…way too many categories. It could very well overwhelm some smaller departments, which is why it is more the purview of the larger ministries.
These larger departments did the analysis in two stages. In stage I, they took all the big categories of jobs and dropped them into three buckets.
The first bucket was all the jobs that had to be predominantly done in the office. The mailroom would be an obvious choice. Pretty hard to handle the physical mail while working from home (unless it has been opened and digitally scanned, I suppose). Direct services are also hard to do from home if you’re doing anything with physical records. Like passports that come in paper form with pictures attached, etc. Some IT stuff has to be onsite, particularly to monitor and manage some servers, but also if there are people working onsite for other reasons (including voluntarily by preference), they might need direct support from IT or other services.
The second bucket was on the opposite end of the spectrum for things that generally could be done from home, with little security concerns or need for direct interactions with other staff. Some of the things might surprise you in the list. Call centres, for example, were usually done in an office. But if you can outsource private sector calls to other countries, you can certainly have people logging in and doing their call centre work from home in a lot of cases. Processing centres, where all the materials are electronic, are an interesting challenge…everything is online, great, but there are some security concerns. Some would argue they therefore CAN’T be done remotely, but some went the other way. Most financial services didn’t present security concerns in the same way and almost all of it is online/digital, so they were mostly put in this bucket, as were business analysis, reporting, and most management services. However, there are certain functions that are more “WFH with some caveats” like anything involving investigations and interviews in the field or outreach activities with Canadians.
The third bucket was the chaos bucket — everyone who would be hybrid, sometimes WFH and sometimes at the office, although frequency is in the next stage. All executives were classed as hybrid, right off the bat. And their supports aka admins were too. By default, almost all policy wonks aka the ECs and PMs doing policy work are default hybrid. You know, the ones who are supposed to be working horizontally now but where it’s not working as well as people hope or claim. Review functions like evaluation and audit, which often involve interviews, were also often hybrid. And then there were all the secret files — parliamentary affairs, legal, intergovernmental, ATIP, HR, translators. Or people-centric things like dispute resolution. I call it chaos because, just because you were hybrid, it didn’t really answer the question of what form that hybrid nature would take.
So Stage II was created. While technically EVERYONE is hybrid in the sense that even WFH people can be required to come into the office for certain things (like team building, all staffs, etc.) at times, just that it will be rare. Well, within the “hybrid” category, I feel like there are five types of hybrid schedules:
- 1 day per quarter (minimal)
- 1 day per month (organizational)
- 1 day every one to two weeks (more managerial)
- 2 days per week (presence)
- more than 2d per week (active horizontal engagement)
For departments doing this second stage, the focus was often left to Directors and below to work out with their teams what they thought was a reasonable starting point. An extended pilot, in some ways.
Interestingly, it was often a microcosm of the larger issues. Certainty vs. chaos, fairness vs. commonality. I found it almost amusing as I had two teams under me at the time of the decision — one was predominantly work from home, but would likely come in once per quarter for the teambuilding stuff. And then a hybrid team that worked actively with mostly WFH types, and they would likely come in once per quarter for teambuilding stuff. They were adjacent on the continuum, two separate ratings, but they ended up with the same approach.
Others went wildly different and said, “Come in any day you want, 1d per week!”.
Most took their cues on a trickle-down basis. Oh, the DG is going to be in 3d a week? And the Director will be in 2d a week? And the managers 1d a week? Well, then, perhaps the staff will come in once every two weeks on whatever day the managers and Director overlap.
Or they saw that the ADM was only coming in 1d a week, and they adjusted downwards too.
Note that in ALL of this, the option to work 5d a week IF YOU WANT is always available, regardless of the bucket approach or whatever management decided in other configurations. That is a direct tie to the mental health issues for those who do not have a great setup at home. If you want to be in the office, that’s up to you.
But even if departments did all that analysis, got it all down to a set of pre-determined choices or a more open environment, there was an extra wrinkle if you are hybrid. It is the chaos variable again. Because if you are, say 2 days a week, and that is what you’ve worked out or your management has decreed, it still leaves a giant question…is it the same 2 days every week (hybrid – fixed) or do the days vary each week (hybrid – variable)?
If your head exploded with a bunch of those options, it’s not surprising. Because it doesn’t take long for people to say, “But what about THIS issue, how does THAT work?”.
Do you know the odd issue that is blowing my mind? Basic occupational health and safety. I don’t mean something like masks and spacing and hand sanitizer, oh my! I mean something else.
I work in a tall building, lots of branches and floors. Most of the time, each floor was a different branch. Not quite, but close enough for the example. And right now, we only have two of the floors open for access by everyone. My branch’s old floor, the fifth, has not been open up until recently, but has just opened to our branch’s use only. We can go back and use the spaces we used to “own”. A piece of real estate that might be familiar to some. Yeah, we’re still hotelling, no personalization of space, blah blah blah. But that’s not the interesting part. Some of the floors are ready, but haven’t been opened yet, and our floor is…wait for it…only open for use on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.
There’s a reason for it. Go ahead, think about it for a minute, I’ve already given you a hint. Join me and we’ll hum the theme from Final Jeopardy.
Okay, time’s up, let’s look to see if you came up with the correct final Jeopardy answer. “What is only opening enough floors to accommodate those in the building so we can track where people are and have people onsite in case of fire or evacuation requirements?”.
Huh. Yep, I didn’t get it either. In the past, every floor had emergency volunteer wardens. We had fire drills, and people guiding people to stairwells. Now? We have NO idea who would be there on any given day. So we need to have permanent people onsite all the time who can handle these things AND be on the floor, not down in security. If a fire happens, we can’t just take the elevator up 12 floors to see what’s going on. And that’s not just a “nice to have”, we have legal requirement for OSH that we have to meet / enforce. Many departments are hiring students to help do that, with training in OSH and first aid. My branch is only opening the floor Tuesday-Thursday as there won’t be enough people Monday and Friday to make it worthwhile to have bodies onsite providing support. Instead, people going in those days will have to work on one of the other two open floors.
Other needs include, frequently, some form of onsite concierge business service function. People who basically know how to get you up and running when you get there and find out your laptop won’t connect, or your tablet doesn’t fit the default ports for some reason. I’m pretty digitally-enabled for an old fart, and my first day at a new location, I had four problems.
First, the parking lot used only Indigo app payments, no physical kiosk, and my app was NOT letting me buy a pass for the day (it kept telling me I had to buy it onsite, which was bogus, but slowed me down). There was no option for anyone to help me onsite, nor will there be, but it was an issue.
Second, I forgot my pass. Apparently, they could have called over to my main department to look me up in the system, but I decided to pop home only 10m away and get my pass.
Third, I couldn’t connect my tablet, it wouldn’t recognize the system. Because of course on logon, it was still trying to run my VPN as it does at home, I didn’t remember that I don’t need the VPN at the office, it’s just a straight connection.
And fourth, I needed them to show me how to get set up for one of the printers in the floor so I could dump some docs before coming home.
I didn’t even get to the stage of trying to run a meeting in the boardroom with half digital and half in-person participants.
But I digress.
I’m just flagging that just because someone has made an initial decision to say “this is what we’re doing”, that doesn’t mean everything falls into place immediately after that…there are STILL issues.
And we have another 100 to go for HR, recruiting, onboarding, etc.
Without a lot of useful guidance, most departments have made those initial decisions based on the need to make SOME sort of a decision, avoid the Wakanda Forever chants, and try to balance certainty and fairness while respecting operational needs. Almost all of them have been at least “hybrid variable” of some sort for large swaths of the staff.
It’s too bad that all those people writing about Subway didn’t spend some of that energy suggesting that 2d a month was a good reasonable model to accomplish all the organization’s goals. A consensus that met management’s needs to address some cracks might have actually given employees options closer to what they wanted.
I can’t help feel that we missed an opportunity to influence the directions better. But if you don’t give them options that meet their needs, management will create the options that do. I’m not sure it was the best choice, but it was at least a decision in a sea of chaos.